RESEARCHERS behind a caffeine supplement that improved perinatal lamb mortality by 21 per cent are in the process of finding a commercial partner to make the product available to producers.
About one in five lambs born in Australia die within days of birth, usually caused by prolonged or difficult births, starvation or exposure.
Looking to combat these figures, a Charles Sturt University (CSU) team successfully trialled the oral supplementation of caffeine, a drug widely drunk by humans, during a paddock stud of grazing Merino ewes in 2016.
The pregnant ewes had been naturally mated to Merino rams during a six week joining in February and March and were fed the drug as a feed additive to barley grain from the birth of the first lamb for 14 days.
Their expectations were exceeded when the flock’s lamb mortality dropped from 30 per cent to nine per cent as a result of the supplement.
CSU has lodged a patent application for the novel treatment and are seeking a commercial partner to license and commercialise the product.
While the field trial was only conducted with sheep, project leader and CSU’s Graham Centre research fellow Dr Susan Robertson said the treatment was likely to also suit cattle and goats due to similar mortality causes.
She was first drawn to the drug when researching its use in human medicine.
“Most of us who do research in lamb survival don’t focus on chemical means, we are focusing on the nutrition and the management,” she said.
“I’d read other literature and medical literature shows that this caffeine causes physiological changes that would likely be relevant to the sheep industry.
“We thought maybe a 10 per cent improvement in survival, the result we showed was somewhat outstanding.”
While their study didn’t test how the compound combated the mortality, Dr Robertson said it may change behaviour, reduce the difficulty in birthing and birth injury to lambs.
CSU researchers estimate that nationally about 10 million lambs die every year, worth more than $1 billion annually, making their caffeine supplement a game changer for the industry.
Currently regulation restrictions make it impossible for producers to give it to their stock.
Dr Robertson said like all new chemicals used in animal production, the drug needed to undergo further evaluation and gain approval by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority before it could be used by commercial producers.
How the drug will be delivered, be it a pre-mixed supplement, straight dose or controlled release capsule, and its cost will be up to the commercial partner.
Dr Robertson said it was important that the product was offered in a user friendly form to avoid any issues with supplying the drug to sheep and ensure it was done in a safe manner at the right quantity.
“While like many drugs it is toxic at the wrong dose, at the correct dose rate there were no detrimental effects on the ewes or lambs,” she said.
But she reminded producers not to attempt giving their animals caffeine until a commercial product was approved and available.
“If this becomes commercialised there will be a withholding period to be established for food safety but there aren’t any, as far as we know, adverse effects on the sheep at the correct dose,” Dr Robertson said.